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The Heart of El Paso

After an attack on a church strikes close to home, I wonder how to combat the silence around anti-Catholic incidents

Maggie Phillips
December 17, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral/Facebook
St. Patrick Cathedral/Facebook
St. Patrick Cathedral/Facebook
St. Patrick Cathedral/Facebook

For the past year or so, I have followed the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. with alarm. I have been dismayed to note that outside of local news reports and specific news outlets with particular worldviews, there has not been much of a wider, serious discussion of these events in non-Jewish media.

As a Catholic, I noted with similar alarm the rise in lone wolf attacks against my own faith’s spaces and art, and what I perceived to be a similar lack of widespread denunciation and concern in the popular discourse.

I tried to remain objective, however. I thought maybe it was my own bias. After all, as a person of faith, my thinking was probably blinkered. Where you sit is where you stand, after all, and as so many voices have reminded me in recent months, my perspective was the same one that had led me to be complicit in police brutality and systemic racism. Perhaps I was allowing my prejudices to privilege the concerns of my community over broader, more pressing issues of equity and racial justice.

Then, earlier this fall, a statue of Jesus was decapitated in the cathedral where my parents and grandparents got married. This bizarre incident felt like more than the violation of something sacred—as awful as that was for me, a believing Catholic, to contemplate. As I gazed upon pictures of the smashed statue at St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso, Texas, I noticed within myself rising frustration.

Surely, I reasoned, this vandalism of a Catholic space, in a predominantly Hispanic city, during an ongoing spate of anti-religious attacks, was an event cosmically tailored to invite a cultural discussion of the complex interplay between religion and ethnicity in our country. All the more so because it took place in the context of a wider national reckoning focused on race and marginalization.

It was not to be.

On Sept. 15, 30-year-old Isaiah Cantrell is alleged to have walked into St. Patrick Cathedral in El Paso, Texas, and decapitated a large statue of Jesus overlooking the altar. As a cathedral, the century-old church is the seat of the bishop responsible for the care and religious instruction of the faithful in the surrounding area—in effect, the capital of the Diocese of El Paso, which includes nine counties and is over 60% Hispanic. The event made its way through Catholic media—both traditional and social—but made few headlines elsewhere.

El Paso is a city fond of its icons. A 459-by-278-foot star on the Franklin Mountain range—which the city illuminates nightly—appears on stickers, shirts, murals, and more. Residents can pay the city’s Chamber of Commerce $50 to light the mountain star in their name in honor of a birthday or anniversary. They also receive a commemorative “Starlighter Certificate.” The mountain star is also depicted on the logo for the city’s “El Paso Strong” campaign. #ElPasoStrong began to show up on social media and elsewhere in response to the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart shootings, and has since been folded by the city and others into El Paso’s COVID-19 response.

Courtesy Diocese of El Paso

Given the breakneck pace of events in 2020, it is hard to believe that the mass shooting that killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart was barely more than a year ago. Six months after the shooting, in February, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso was holding an anniversary Mass, distributing rosaries to the families of those killed. A month later, Seitz announced the suspension of public Mass due to the COVID-19 pandemic—a decision that is not without consequence in a city located at the heart of a diocese that estimates nearly 80% of the 858,546 people living within its jurisdiction are Catholic.

After over a year of cascading tragedies, Cantrell’s alleged decapitation of the St. Patrick altar statue was the cruel denouement.

The statue of Jesus at “St. Pat’s” was an icon nearly on the level of the star on the mountain. He stood, larger than life, arms outstretched, a Statue of Liberty of the desert. With this accessible posture, he seemed to welcome the people who often gravitate most toward faith and belief: the poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

It was the centerpiece of a uniquely American house of worship. Dedicated on Thanksgiving Day in 1917 during WWI, the church was named for the patron saint of Ireland by the El Paso chapter of the Daughters of Erin.

My family has deep roots in El Paso. St. Pat’s could almost be a metaphor for my entire existence as an American of Mexican and Irish descent. Expand the aperture a bit, and the weddings of my own parents and grandparents that took place there are the city’s unique character and the American experience in microcosm.

Fort Bliss, El Paso, was the first assignment in the Army for my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father.

My great-grandfather was a dashing, polo-playing Army officer from Albany, New York. Newly commissioned from West Point, he brought with him to El Paso the beautiful Harriet McDonald, a stylish character out of a Kaufman and Hart play. Her arrival was heralded in the local newspaper’s society pages.

I joke that if a time traveler had asked Lt. Jack MacFarland which he thought more likely—that his grandson would one day be the commanding general of Fort Bliss, or that the same grandson would marry the descendant of one of the Mexicans from El Paso’s Segundo Barrio—he probably would have chosen the former, and been shocked to learn the answer was “both.”

My maternal grandfather was from Chicago, the grandson of Italian immigrants. Drafted during the Korean War, Tony was assigned to Fort Bliss, where he met Maria Salazar. Maria’s mother was a Mexican refugee whose alderman father had fled Mexico under mysterious circumstances. Her father was a mestizo Indian who played drums in a jazz band.

In the early 1980s, Fort Bliss was once again the first assignment for a Lt. MacFarland from upstate New York—my father, Sean. He met and married my mother, Lynda, the daughter of Maria Salazar and Tony, the Chicago Italian.

Maria and Tony, Sean and Lynda, were all married at St. Pat’s under the statue of Jesus that greeted congregants with open arms.

In light of this family lore, therefore, it seemed to me that its vandalism was an affront not only to religious pluralism, but to the American system that is supposed to nurture it. That it seemed to garner so little concern outside of Catholic or Hispanic communities distressed me.

As the history of El Paso shows, faith can create a common vocabulary when other differences threaten to divide—their whole lives, my Mexican and Irish ancestors all heard the same Mass, on the same three-year cycle, in the same liturgical Latin.

St. Pat’s was a symbol of the America that made the story of El Paso—the stories of Jack, Harriet, Maria, Tony, Lynda, and Sean, and so many others—possible.

The statue’s decapitation was just the latest incident to rock an American Catholic community—and most of these incidents have received scant media attention in national mainstream media beyond reporting of the basic facts in isolation.

In our narrative-obsessed media culture, the rash of incidents on Catholic institutions alone should have merited a weekslong, in-depth report from some outlet or other. The attack on a cathedral in a predominantly Hispanic town, the site of a racist killing spree barely a year prior, should have been the catalyst for some kind of discussion among the chattering classes.

On July 10, for example, a school and seminary in the Diocese of Brooklyn found the word “IDOL” scrawled across a statue of the Virgin Mary, it was one of nearly 20 acts of vandalism, arson, and desecration carried out against Catholic buildings this year. The next day in Florida, a man drove his van into Queen of Peace Catholic Church, before setting fire to it, with parishioners inside.

In October, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chair of religious liberty for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, joined with leaders from other Christian denominations along with those from the Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths to present a letter to Congress. In it, they are petitioning for quadrupled funds for a federal grant that enables nonprofits to provide security for themselves. The letter cited FBI statistics noting over 1,200 hate crimes against various religious denominations in 2018.

Part of St. Patrick Cathedral’s fundraising efforts to restore the statue included requests for moneys toward improved security for the church. While the cathedral met its financial goal within about two weeks through donations from across the country, Diocese of El Paso spokesman Fernando Ceniceros says the preponderance of donors were Catholic.

Clearly, the nationwide nature of the donations do not point to a lack of reporting on the situation. Ceniceros told me he doesn’t feel like the St. Patrick Cathedral vandalism has suffered from a lack of national media inattention. There was nothing, however, along the lines of the high-profile effort in April 2019 that saw celebrities donating large sums to raise money for three Black churches in Louisiana that were destroyed as the targets of arson attacks.

For the past year, I’ve watched with mounting frustration as the same outlets that had failed to provide any cogent analysis on religion in American life similarly paint Mexicans and other Hispanic populations with a broad brush. They were all simply Latinx or “the Hispanic vote,” and they cared about immigration. End of discussion.

The media’s inconsistent coverage of race and minority rights was on full display with regard to the death of U.S. Army soldier Vanessa Guillen this past summer.

Vanessa Guillen, a Hispanic, was murdered this spring at Fort Hood, Texas. Guillen’s body was discovered in late June, after she’d been missing for more than two months. Outside of local news, military publications, and Hispanic traditional and social media, Guillen’s disappearance failed to reach the national consciousness at large. That is, until her dismembered body was found near the Leon River and the case briefly assumed a higher profile.

During a relatively low-key event on July 30—at President Trump’s invitation—Guillen’s mother spoke to the president at the White House through a translator; she expressed her desire for legislation to prevent the kind of sexual harassment she believes her daughter faced from her alleged murderer. Then, the story faded into the ether. Amid a pandemic, an election year, and ongoing civic unrest, it was so much background noise.

Despite the national fixation on diversity, neither the public nor most media really seemed interested in the richly diverse Hispanic groups that make up nearly 20% of the country. At least until Trump picked up more votes from Hispanic voters than he did in 2016.

Even last year’s Walmart shooting in El Paso—where the assailant explicitly targeted Mexicans—seemed to recede during our current annus horribilis. A quick Google search of the one-year anniversary yields primarily local and state news reports. One AP story primarily focuses on how COVID-19 restrictions limited memorials, with only passing mentions of the attacker’s racist motive.

Yet Isaiah Cantrell’s rationale for his alleged defacement of St. Patrick Cathedral—the statue’s skin color was wrong—fits squarely within a wider iconoclastic moment related to race: Over the summer, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, protesters defaced and removed statues of civic and historical figures as a statement against systemic racism in the United States.

The media devoted a great deal of coverage about toppled statues of abolitionists, graffiti on Confederate monuments, and looting of stores and businesses. As inchoate violence erupted around the country, houses and symbols of worship were defiled along with them. I felt crucial elements were missing from the cultural conversation. Given that the specific incident in El Paso was part of the broader zeitgeist surrounding race and minority cultures in our country, it seemed glaring to me that this incident was not folded into the broader discourse.


Much as the anti-Semitic attacks perpetrated against Jews in New York City went largely unremarked upon outside of specific interested and local news outlets, the current rash of church attacks have simply failed to become part of a popular narrative about anti-Catholicism or anti-Christianity in the U.S.

While one can find stories here and there, and images of desecrated places and objects abound on Catholic social media accounts, these instances are hardly galvanizing anyone to action.

What kind of action do you want? I find myself asking, when I see my religion or ethnicity attacked, caricatured, or ignored, and notice again the feelings of impotent frustration welling up.

I am forced to recall that the faith whose desecration devastates me, the faith professed by my parents and grandparents, by Jack and Harriett MacFarland—the same faith that tells me to do justice—also tells me to love mercy and walk humbly. Far from a passive acceptance of wrongdoing and inequity, this exhortation calls me to something more. Doing justice, when accompanied with mercy and humility, doesn’t just balance the scales. It is peace.

Mercy, then, requires me to love my enemies and pray for their repentance. My faith obligates me to offer what little I can, every day, at every moment, to atone for the wrongs I do to others, as well as for my complicity in the greater wrongs of my country, my faith—indeed, of all humanity. Humility requires me to respond with patient charity to those who mock and criticize, even (maybe especially) when they don’t understand. I slowly notice that these virtues, when practiced diligently, begin to transfigure my helpless desire. The pent-up energy of grievance is transformed and channeled into actions that bring about peace in my soul, my home, and my approach toward others.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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